May 9 2007
Dear Ms. Campbell,
Much has been said about your debut, Claiming the Courtesan. Arguments raced round and round the blogosphere; discussions sprouted from here to Jennifer Crusie's blog. After reading comments from people who reviled the book to comments from people who adored it, I decided to read it and see for myself what the brouhaha was about.
As by now everyone and her sister-in-law knows, Claiming the Courtesan centers on Justin, Duke of Kylemore, and his former courtesan, Soraya, aka Verity Ashton, whom he kidnaps at gunpoint, drags to Scotland, and eventually, forces sex on in an attempt to reawaken her sexual side.
Verity wants no more part of her former life as Soraya, and is ready to live a life of good works and celibacy with her brother Ben on the sheep farm the money she earned on her back will finance. It's Ben who convinces Verity to split town without a goodbye to the duke as soon as her contract with him is up. Verity does this after brushing aside a graceless proposal from the duke, who wants to spite his mother by marrying Soraya.
When the duke finds his erstwhile mistress, he comes down on her and Ben like the wrath of Satan. His henchmen hold down Ben while others spirit the duke and Verity away. At first, Kylemore mistakenly believes that Verity and Ben are lovers, but even after he realizes that this is not the case, his rage knows few bounds.
It took me a while to become engaged in the story because Justin and Verity both start out melodramatic and shrill, and the language in which their story is told is so heightened that it required some effort to get used to it. Even after I did, on occasion a line here or there would pull me out of the story because it seemed over the top. For example, “A carillon of victory joined the desire pounding through his veins to create a thunderous symphony of desire.” (p.136)
Justin is more than a little crazed for a good chunk of the book. Part of him is aware that his actions have no excuse, and that part of him also deeply respects Verity. At the same time, there are also many moments when he shows Verity disrespect not just in his treatment of her but also in his thoughts, where he refers to her as “the strumpet,–? “the baggage,–? and “the trull,–? and thinks about teaching her that her place is in his bed.
Verity also has a kind of split personality, in that she refuses to acknowledge that Soraya, the role she played in over a decade as a courtesan, is actually a part of her. She represses the sexual part of herself, which is exactly what Justin wants to bring out in her.
These dualities in Justin and Verity were so pronounced in the beginning of Claiming the Courtesan that I had a difficult time relating to either character. Both of them seemed so all-over-the-place in their behavior and their thoughts that neither one felt quite real to me, and they seemed more like broad caricatures at first.
I had difficulty imagining someone as unstable as Justin smoothly managing multiple estates as he had done, or someone as repressive of her sexuality as Verity in the role of seductive courtesan. A brief scene of them as protector and mistress at the beginning of the book was not enough to help me understand how these two had functioned in those roles, and I nearly stopped reading, not because of the forced sex but because of these characterization issues and because of my aforementioned reaction to the language.
The middle section of the book was the most interesting to me because here the characters calmed down somewhat and became more thoughtful and contemplative, interested in understanding each other's motives and their own. This made them feel more like real people, and I began to care about them more. There were some interesting dynamics between them in this section, as each began to suss out the other's vulnerabilities, and to understand that their own feelings were not as clear cut as they had thought.
Unfortunately, this section felt truncated to me, when Verity forgave Justin rather quickly and didn't seem to retain much trauma from his earlier treatment of her, and Justin reformed so speedily and thoroughly that he no longer seemed like the same character from the beginning of the book.
I realize that I was meant to feel that Justin and Verity had to some degree loved one another from the first page, but except for a couple of brief moments, I couldn't connect with that love emotionally in the first third of the book. I found myself wishing for a flashback to the beginning of their sexual relationship, so that I could see what that dynamic had been like and who they were back then.
The final portion of the book was not as realistic, nor as interesting as the middle section, but in some ways it was actually more satisfying for me, because by this point the characters, while a bit too sweet, were also more cohesive and that made them easier for me to relate to. Even though I didn't find their transformation completely convincing, I started to root for them a bit here, and enjoyed reading about their romantic feelings.
This section was marred somewhat by the emergence of the villainess who seemed to me to be just too evil to be very believable, and by the (in my opinion) simplistic way that Verity's brother Ben's conflict with Justin was resolved.
I appreciate that you attempted something very ambitious in this book, and tried to create a rich story of psychological depth and complexity, but to my thinking, this goal was not quite attained. I don't feel that it was a waste of time or money to read the book, but I also didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped to.
Claiming the Courtesan kept me reading, but it did not rivet me. My reaction to this book was not as powerful as I hoped or expected; as I write this, I feel somewhat detached, and for this reason, I can neither rail against Claiming the Courtesan nor champion it. C for this one.